If asked to envision an indigenous African tribe, chances are that most people would think about the Himba people of Namibia. Said to be the country’s most widely photographed tribe, the Himba are well known for their highly elaborate fashions, their long braided hairstyles, and their preference for oversized, ornamental accessories.
The Himba people are hunter gatherers, and the men primarily work as cattle farmers which means that leather is one of the most common materials for local jewellery making. This ancient trend has remained popular through the generations, and tribal inspired leather necklaces are now made, worn, and appreciated around the world.
However, leather is not the only material valued by the Himba. Copper wire, ostrich eggshells, beads, grass, and cloth are also used in local jewellery making. While Himba jewellery comes in a vast array of bold and vibrant colours, many of the authentic pieces are red. That’s because Himba women often adorn themselves with a red paste called otjize, which helps to protect their skin from the sun. Otjize is also a natural insect repellent, so it is common for the paste to also be applied to clothing and jewellery, giving accessories the instantly recognisable terracotta hue the tribe is known for.
While not all Himba jewellery is smothered in otjize, many pieces are still made with natural red-hued materials, with this rich, deep colour representing the essence of life.
Types of Himba Jewellery
Stunning headdresses are often worn by Himba women following marriage, highlighting their status within the community, and statement necklaces have a similar purpose. However, the chunky arm and leg bracelets that have become synonymous with the Himba are typically worn for a much more practical reason. Often extending most of the way along the limbs, these bracelets are one of the best ways to protect the extremities from the local wildlife. The eye catching appearance of this protective feature has proven so popular that the tribal bracelet is now a much-loved piece.
One of the most important pieces of jewellery that a Himba woman will ever own is a necklace called ‘ohumba’. It’s a traditional childbirth gift - a symbol of fertility - that features a large shell that hangs between the breasts. Although this is a custom that is unique to the Himba, the overall design of such a necklace is one that can be seen in many other cultures.
The Global Influence of the Himba
If only one word could be chosen to describe Himba jewellery, that word would be ‘ornamental’. The ornate details of the handmade accessories worn by the Himba people have undoubtedly shaped the styles that are worn across the world today. There are even some designers who have chosen to base their entire collections on the global influences of the Himba, and on the influence of nearby indigenous tribes, showing how timeless, and influential, these ancient designs really are.